Dancing Lessons

Dancing LessonsThere is so much meat in this book for group discussions that I was rather surprised and disappointed when I could not find any reader’s guide for a book club.  This was a feel-good story, despite the disheartened past of the main character, Gertrude Samphire.  She is a senior in Jamaica, who is looking back on her life which is filled with misundertandings and irony: her marriage didn’t turn out the way she dreamed, and while she had four children with her husband, they all became estranged and distant from her (both emotionally and physically).  The eldest daughter, Celia, is the only one who has remained in frequent contact with her mother—but there doesn’t seem to be any tight bond even between them.  Their relationship is one of the major focuses of the novel.  In fact, it is Celia who brings Gertrude to Ellesmere Lodge after her house has been severely damaged by a hurricane.
The residence is where we are introduced to many different and funny seniors, who add humor to the text.  It is through some of these interesting characters that Gertrude grows into the person she is at the end.  Choose your preferred resident—there are a number of them who all seem annoying to her and superficial at first—but then certain bonds are actually formed and specific lady friends change in Gertrude’s eyes.  She becomes more sympathetic to them as they all deal with the realities of old age.  She even begins to have a crush on a handsome Mr. Bridges, who certainly leaves a lasting impression on her.
We get to feel the setting of the tropics through Gertrude’s voice by the detailed descriptions from her youth and tough life growing up.  There is a bittersweet (and often times sarcastic) tone in her narrative, which is fitting.  As readers, we want her to overcome insecurities and find a new start to life, no matter what her age.  We sympathize with her when she gets separated from her father and cheer her on when she discovers that she can be a strong, confident and caring woman all at once.
I think this novel is certainly a gem that hasn’t been raved about enough.  The quality of the writing along with the plot of the story drives you to finish the book and leaves you satisfied.  What did you think after reading it?  Did you like Gertrude’s character?  What are your opinions about Celia and her siblings?

If you are a member of the library, we have this title in:
Hard copy (F S477d)
Check the catalog for availability.

To read reviews on Dancing Lessons please click on the links below.
From The National Post:
http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/10/14/open-book-dancing-lessons-by-olive-senior/

From The Globe & Mail:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/dancing-lessons-by-olive-senior/article2181726/

For information on Olive Senior, click below:
http://www.olivesenior.com/author/index.html

Discussion Questions
As I have mentioned above, I could not find any place that had discussion questions for this book, even though this title clearly has engaging topics to reflect on.  The following questions are ones that I have thought up.  Please feel free to use them in your own group or answer them on my blog!

1-Music/dancing and mangoes are recurring themes that weave themselves throughout the story line.  What do you think they symbolize?
2-The way Gertrude sees herself seems to have affected all the relationships in her life.  Do you think that if she were more confident, the bond to her children would have been different?  Would she have made more friends at the senior residence?
3-The names that Gertrude and her daughter Celia use to refer to each other has changed as Celia grows up.  How significant is this?
4-Celia is named after Miss Celia.  In what ways are the two women alike?  Different?  Why do you think Gertrude picked this name for her daughter?
5-The book is written as if it is Gertrude’s journal.  Do you think that Celia’s questions will be answered once this journal is given to her?
6-Why do you think Gertrude writes most of her real feelings or thoughts down instead of speaking them aloud?  Do you think the act of writing is a powerful gift?
7-What do you think were Mr. Bridges’ real intentions?
8-Is the title appropriate for the novel?
9-How do you think Celia’s life would have turned out if she never went away to live with the rich couple?
10-Why do you think Gertrude looked up to Ma D?

There are so many other issues that can be brought up, but the number of questions would never end.  I hope you find these ones enough to keep a conversation going on for a while  🙂

Interesting Tidbit:
I went to the official tourism website for Jamaica to see if I could find a residence home named Ellesmere Lodge (like in the book), but there were no links to services for this.  I checked the Carribean Yellow Pages and there was no Ellesmere Lodge there either, but there was a generous list of about 20 other residences and nursing homes for seniors.  I was just curious to know whether the senior home in the novel was based on a real-life one.  If you are interested in Jamaica’s heritage and history, go to their website and get tips on what to do there when visiting!
Click on http://www.visitjamaica.com/default.aspx

This book reminded me of …
When reading about Gertrude’s present situation, there is such a similarity to Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen because of the whole senior residence issue.  You also get the sense of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, since Gertrude is speaking in first person and recalling days during the time of the Civil Rights Movement.  It even reminds me a little of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill because the character in that book is also relating her story in older age and looking back on her sad youth and life in captivity.  Even though Gertrude is not a slave, her ancestors surely were and she has also faced a sort of captivity: more emotional than physical—but a captivity nonetheless.

Favorite quote from book:
“‘What, what?’ Babe crows in a slightly irritable tone.  She can be counted on to miss half of what is being said because she is too proud to admit she is deaf and a hearing aid would clash with her gaudy diamond earrings.” (p. 73)

Most uplifting moment in the story:
There are actually two prominent parts in the story where we are uplifted or feel happy for Gertrude.  They both have to do with a feeling of rebirth or acceptance of oneself.  The first moment is where Gertrude admits that she has formed an actual friendship with one of the ladies at the residence, Ruby (p. 299-308).  The other instance is when Gertrude is cleaning up Mr. Bridge’s room and dancing freely by herself to Buddy Holly (p. 317).  It is during these accounts that we really see how she has changed and how she sees herself becoming a new person who will be open to opportunities—even with things regarding her children.

Next Month’s title:
Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

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